Chris: "Please be as brutally honest with this question as possible. I know the past rivalry of the Browns/Steelers exists still, but heading into THIS week's game, do you really feel any more emotionally charged than you would against a more competitive team? (i.e. what is the intensity of the rivalry in 2009 as a Steelers fan)?"
Michael: "Interesting question. I'll say two things. Firstly, I'd imagine that many long time fans of the game - those who were around when the Steelers/Browns rivalry was one of the best in football - are always excited when Cleveland's next up on the schedule. I myself am not quite old enough to appreciate the true greatness and intensity of the rivalry, but my guess is that older fans don't allow current records and trends to diminish their interest in each and every game played between the two teams. That's why their rivalries, not merely games with immediately relevant playoff implications.
Secondly, I'm personally extremely anxious for this one. It's a mix of excitement and optimism that the Steelers will continue to iron out some kinks while notching their third win in a row. But also mixed in there is the understanding that the writing could hit the wall this weekend if the Steelers struggle in the same way(s) that they have early this season - even in victory.
This is the kind of game that the Steelers (and their fanbase) really need. Pittsburgh has struggled a bit out of the gates this year, but they're still 3-2 and have done plenty of nice things through five games. The most notable, of course, would be the improved play of the offensive line, the running game and the exponentially improved play of Ben Roethlisberger. A loss to Cleveland though - at Heinz Field no less - and it will be a lot harder to rationalize to ourselves that this team 'has it' this year. Bottom line is we're excited for this one."
Chris: "The Steelers' defense hasn't been as dominant this season. Surely this can't be due to losing just one player in Troy Polamalu, can it?"
Michael: "Well, that's the million dollar question around Steeler Nation. Football's so wonderfully fascinating in that way. It's the penultimate team sport. You lose a Kobe Bryant in basketball, you're screwed. You lose your top wide receiver, safety or running back in football and you're expected to not suffer too big a dropoff. I don't know. It's impossible to quantify just how much of a difference a super-human player like Polamalu makes. My gut tells me though that he makes all difference in the world for Dick LeBeau's defense.
If you watch and re-watch NFL games - especially in slow motion - you start to see just how much of a mental game it is. A game of cat and mouse between quarterbacks and opposing defenses. It's why quarterbacks typically don't hit their stride until later in their careers - after they've had awhile to accumulate knowledge and store it away in their memory bank. So much of what unfolds on an NFL field is decided in that 10-20 seconds in the qb's brain before and right after the ball is snapped.
When a quarterback sees Polamlu dancing around, Head & Shoulders conditioned hair glistening in the autumnal air (haha, couldn't resist), quarterbacks, even the best of them, have to process all that information in a different way than when they're staring down a guy like Tyrone Carter. Again, impossible to quantify, but I'd say that the absolute most important thing for a quarterback to have at the line of scrimmage is a clear, confident head."
Chris: "Over the past few weeks, we've seen Rashard Mendenhall take control of the running back position in Willie Parker's absence. Would you rather Mendenhall get all the carries going forward, or should Parker still see half the carries when he comes back?"
Michael: "I think it depends on who the Steelers are playing. Against physical, stout rush defenses like Baltimore or Minnesota, I'd rather Mendenhall get 15 carries to Parker's 10. But against less imposing defenses, I'd just assume the Steelers get some final value out of Parker before he most likely moves on at the end of this year. Mendenhall has shown promise the past two weeks. Enough to persuade even the most fervent doubters of our 2008 Draft Class that he can at least be serviceable in the future. I suppose then an ideal situation would be to keep getting him touches, experience, etc etc while not working him too hard.
Then again, the Steelers might be able to retain Parker by keeping his market value artificially low this year. They theoretically could do that I suppose by limiting his carries to around 5-8 touches per game. Teams might be less inclined to shell out decent money for him next spring when he becomes a free agent. Who knows, the Steelers might then be able to keep him for another couple of years for 50 cents on the dollar."
Chris: "The Browns have given up too many rushing yards to more non-mobile quarterbacks the past two weeks against Carson Palmer and Trent Edwards. Based on his stats, Ben Roethlisberger hasn't broken off many nice scrambles this season. Is this an effort by him to be more of a passing quarterback, or are defenses just doing a good job spying on him?"
Michael: "I'm running long here, but I'd answer quite simply here that Ben is maturing as a pocket passer in his 6th NFL season. That said, Ben's had some nice runs this year. They've come mostly in critical situations where the passing game has sufficiently convinced the defense that Ben is more of a threat as a pocket passer than he is scrambling. Check out some of the pictures from Pittsburgh's Week 2 loss and you'll realize that he's still more than willing to give up his body to make a play with his legs when his team is needing it most."
Chris: "I won't even ask you who you think will win this Sunday, because I know it'll be the Steelers. How close do you think the game will be?"
Michael: "I actually think the Browns have the right mental makeup heading in to this game to keep it close or win it if things break their way. To reiterate, they'll need some breaks - either multiple Big Ben interceptions, a huge play or two from Joshua Cribbs on special teams, a missed tackle in the secondary, etc etc. But as I wrote yesterday on BTSC, the Browns are 1-0 without Braylon Edwards, and they've played very tough closely contested and physical games the past two weeks.
They weren't rewarded with a win against the Bengals, and it certainly wasn't pretty last week against the Bills, but forget style points. We're talking about professional athletes chalk full of pride and ego. It's way too early in the year for guys like that to give up. And a win at Heinz puts them at 2-4 and theoretically back above water. This game's huge for Cleveland and it wouldn't surprise me if the mercurial Derek Anderson broke out of his funk and had a solid game on Sunday. It will take more than just a solid game from DA though because this one's at Heinz. I'd imagine the Browns will need to force 3 Steelers turnovers to steal a win.
Anyway, I like Cleveland's mental state heading in to this game. Not sure I love Mangini as a motivator or a game coach, but I think the players should mostly be able to get themselves up for this one after finally being rewarded last week with a W. All that said, if Pittsburgh executes and plays even their A- game, they'll win this game by 10 points."